Blazing a trail: Arkansas native becomes first female pastor at 147-year-old church

The Rev. Minnie Autry is the first female pastor to serve at Union Memorial A.M.E. Church in Benton Harbor. The church has been a fixture in the Twin Cities for 147 years. It moved from St. Joseph to Benton Harbor in 1969. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

The Rev. Minnie Autry is the first female pastor to serve at Union Memorial A.M.E. Church in Benton Harbor. The church has been a fixture in the Twin Cities for 147 years. It moved from St. Joseph to Benton Harbor in 1969. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR – Union Memorial A.M.E. Church has had a lot to celebrate over the past year.

This month the church celebrates 147 years of service.

During the worship service on the first Sunday in November, the church made history when the Rev. Minnie Autry took the pulpit. It never before had a female pastor lead the congregation.

In October 2014, former Pastor Michael Carson was assigned to Coppin Chapel A.M.E. Church in Indianapolis, which left a spot open in Benton Harbor.

Autry, who was raised in Arkansas and born into a Methodist family, gladly accepted her new role.

“I’m very grateful and very thankful,” she said. “But at the other end of that spectrum, I am a little bit nervous too for the acceptance.”

Autry’s father was an A.M.E. pastor in his 40s, which had a large influence over her decision. When he and her mother died, Autry’s grandparents kept her going to a Methodist church in her youth.

From Arkansas, she made her move to Michigan in 1968, where she settled down in Detroit with her late husband.

She was a pastor in Detroit for eight years and was assigned to Jackson for another three.

Autry accepted “the call” to teach the word of God in 1991. She was ordained as an Itinerant Deacon three years later, where she proceeded to enroll in the Ecumenical Theological Seminary. Autry graduated Cum Laude with a bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies in 2005.

She completed the Master of Divinity Program in 2010, in addition to one unit of clinical pastoral education at Sinai Grace in 2011. It wasn’t until October 2014, when Bishop John R. Bryant appointed her to serve as Union Memorial’s first female pastor.

A new era

Autry inherited a church that has been around the Twin Cities since 1868. The church began in St. Joseph before moving in 1969 to its current location at 911 S. Crystal Ave. in Benton Harbor.

Carolyn Graves, an administrative assistant to the church, said Autry came in with a firm attitude and lofty goals for the congregation.

“Talk is cheap, and I think see realizes that,” Graves said. “She came in and got things done that some of the former pastors would only talk about.”

Graves spoke of the moment she revealed the news that the church had a female pastor.

For months, the congregation had been waiting for a new pastor and a few weeks before Autry was set to start, Graves broke the news.

“I stood in front of everyone and said, ‘I have news about our next pastor. SHE will be moving to the area …’ and the look on the mens’ faces.” Graves said. “When they heard the word ‘she’ I could tell the women were happy.”

In the few months Autry has been at Union Memorial, she has begun to look at making changes.

The parsonage behind the church’s main building sits dormant, which Autry wants refurbished and renovated. There has also been talk of developing the church’s land for homes, apartments or duplexes.

Autry said she wants what any pastor would – for her congregation to grow numerically and spiritually.

“I would like to see more children in the church,” she said. “As an older church, we have a tendency to lose young adults to more upbeat churches. We are hoping we can turn that around and have those young adults come in and bring their families to be a part of this tradition.”

Autry said she knows how special her role is to the church as the first female pastor, but says she does not want to be defined by it.

“I want to be the best I can be and move past the stigma about female pastors and bishops,” she said. “Even though I am a woman, I am here to pastor the people. There are people who do not accept female pastors, but I don’t worry too much about that because I don’t have to defend my calling to anyone. I let God take care of the doubters and the naysayers.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@thehp.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on June 2, 2015)

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